Metamorphosis, Claremont style: ‘A conversation with trees’ opens at CLMA
by Lisa Butterworth | special to the Courier
It’s fitting that on a recent weekday evening, Vince Skelly wore a green baseball hat emblazoned with the Sycamore School leaf logo. Yes, Claremont’s oldest elementary school is the 35-year-old artist and furniture maker’s alma mater, but it’s also an indirect nod to his craft: carving trees into singular sculptures that accentuate the raw material’s natural beauty. What’s more, many of the trees he carves grew right here in his hometown.
In the wake of the devastating windstorm in January 2022, which felled more than 300 of Claremont’s beloved trees, Skelly embarked on a rescue mission in his pickup truck, clearing driveways, streets, and local landmarks of fallen branches and uprooted trunks with a hand-cranked crane hooked to his tailgate.
“This one came from Pitzer, this one I found on Mountain Avenue, this came from the Botanic Gardens,” Skelly said, as he walked through his workspace, pointing to finished sculptures made of magnolia and white oak. “When I scavenge for logs it’s oddly easy to remember where they come from. Especially when it’s my hometown, because I’m like, ‘Oh man, this was right next to my friend’s house,’ or ‘This is the park I used to play at,’ or ‘These are the botanic gardens I used to hang out at since before I could walk.’”
The pieces resemble smaller versions of dolmens — structures fashioned from large upright stones and topped with a capstone — as many of Skelly’s sculptures do, and they’re on display now in his new solo exhibition, “A Conversation with Trees,” at the Claremont Lewis Museum of Art from February 17 through April 23.
The dolman-like structure adds a functional element to his work, as the shapes lend themselves so well to benches, stools, and tables. Skelly also draws inspiration from midcentury modern design, and, perhaps a more surprising reference, The Flintstones. “I thought that style of illustration was super cool,” he said in reference animated 1960s television classic that is still running in syndication today. “So having this affinity for midcentury design and this nostalgic cartoon reference that I liked, I started to shift my forms to be more like these ancient megalithic structures but with a modern take,” he said, about honing his point of view. The results are sculptures inspired by the past that fit seamlessly into the present, in shapes that honor the natural grains, knots, and idiosyncrasies of the wood.
In addition to featuring local reclaimed wood, A Conversation with Trees also showcases works made from old-growth redwood, mostly salvaged from the stumps of trees decimated by fire. It’s the first time Skelly has worked with the material, something he’s long dreamt of doing, not only because the wood itself is truly stunning, with its hundreds of tightly layered rings, but also because it was the main medium of Northern California sculptor JB Blunk. “[He was the] artist who inspired me to try out this type of thing,” Skelly said of Blunk, who rose to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. “So I always wanted to work with it because of that.”
Like Blunk, Skelly’s tool of choice is a chainsaw. “Blunk was dedicated to that tool, even though it’s this aggressive [machine] that’s used for deforestation, he used it very intentionally in a different way,” Skelly said. “I love that idea of repurposing a tool.” Skelly also uses a simple selection of hand tools including rasps, chisels, and gouges. Though he did get some initial chainsaw safety instructions “from a guy who does roadside attraction [sculptures], like bears and sasquatch and stuff like that,” his woodworking skills are mainly self-taught.
The current show isn’t the first time the sculptor has exhibited work he fashioned from Claremont’s felled trees. In July of last year, “Vince Skelly: After the Storm” showed at Farago Gallery in downtown Los Angeles — a collection of striking pieces that also became a commentary on droughts, storms, and the havoc of climate change. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in Skelly’s career, garnering nationwide attention and making his commissions highly sought after.
Even if you didn’t view that exhibit, you may have unwittingly seen Skelly sculpting its pieces, since he mostly did so out and about around town. Though he now has a work space in La Verne large enough to store his stockpile of material and the forklift he uses to move it, this wasn’t always the case. After moving to San Francisco for college, then living in Portland, Oregon, for a decade, Skelly and his wife, also a Claremont native, returned to the City of Trees in 2021. He worked in his backyard until a neighbor’s noise complaint — understandably, Skelly admits — forced him to find a plan B at the height of After the Storm preparations. In the weeks leading up to the show, Skelly “went rogue,” packing up his tools and materials and setting up shop in unexpected places, like little-used turnouts on Mount Baldy Road and vacant Claremont lots.
His go-to was a lot on Foothill, which also featured the foundation of an abandoned building that had clearly been used by some local skaters, a serendipitous merging of Skelly’s passions. In fact, Skelly’s found a few throughlines from skateboarding to his art. “Growing up skating, I’m always making connections between that and this work,” he said. “Looking for skate spots, it’s super fun — going behind buildings, exploring. I’d be driving and see something and turn around. That’s just how it is scavenging for logs.” His artistic endeavors, however, drew a lot less attention from the law. “Nobody ever called the cops or anything, but I was totally trespassing with a chainsaw,” he said with a laugh.
Since moving back to Claremont, Skelly has dreamed of working with the city to create a program for turning felled trees into public art. “We would harvest all the trees that come down, and save them. People could come, propose a project, and pick a log,” he said. “I want to make sculptures for the parks and benches for the library. There’s so much material, why are we throwing it in the wood chipper when we could turn it into something really cool that kids could play on, or that we could sit on and have lunch? It’s a no-brainer.”
For now, he’s just happy to have a hometown exhibit. “It feels really special,” said Skelly. “What this city is all about— sustainability, trees, art, community — it feels really good to represent that in this show.”